Three new books stand out against the backdrop of events of this month: First Casualty: The Untold Story of the CIA Mission to Avenge 9/11, by Toby Harnden; The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War, by Craig Whitlock, of The Washington Post, based on a secret 2015 government study obtained by the Post after a three-year legal battle; and After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed, by Andrew Bacevich.
Harnden is a veteran British journalist. He is, I think, substantially correct about the beginnings of the American misadventure in Afghanistan. The CIA knew what it was doing with its minimally-invasive horseback strike against al-Qaeda; the rest of the intervention there was a colossal blunder.
To judge from the early reviews, WPost reporter Whitlock has done a splendid job of documenting the parallels of institutional reasoning that led, first to the occupation of South Vietnam, then, forty years later, Afghanistan.
Look for both Harnden’s and Whitlock’s books to attract attention. But the publication dates of both books are still ten days away. And Bacevich’s summing-up is too far-reaching to consider in the heat of the moment.
So instead I read last week several chapters of To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq (2020), by Robert Draper, a writer at large for The New York Times Sunday Magazine and National Geographic Magazine. I wanted to be reminded: How did the US get out of the much bigger mess it made in Iraq with so much less drama?
We know a great deal about how we got into Iraq. Coming fifteen years after Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet (2004), by James Mann, and Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack: The Definitive Account of the Decision to Invade Iraq (2004); seven years after Peter Baker’ Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House. (2013); not to mention Draper’s own initial assessment, Dead Certain: The Presidency of George Bush (2007), which had its beginnings in a Texas Observer profile that helped launch then-Gov. Bush’s presidential bid
Draper’s book is probably the last word on the decision-making that led to the war. He finds, even more persuasively than his predecessors, that there was “no ‘process’ of any kind” in making the decision to go to war, or in the thinking-through of what might happen once war had begun. The self-proclaimed “decider” simply made up his mind, and improvised thereafter. No Iraqi connection to 9/11 has subsequently been discovered. No “weapons of mass destruction” were found. Hopes rode initially on killing Saddam and his sons on the first night of the invasion with a stealth-bomber raid that turned out to have been based on faulty intelligence. After the bombs dropped a few hours too late, chaos ensued.
Draper attaches a good deal of importance to Bush’s thinking with respect to Saddam’s presumed attempt to assassinate his father with a car bomb when the former president visited Kuwait in 1993, two years after the first war with Iraq. I was disappointed by Draper’s chapter on the role of the press in supporting the war, “Truth and the Tellers.” Both the Times and Wall Street Journal aggressively backed the Bush administration’s charges and plans. But he realistically hints at the in-house pressures, quoting national security specialist James Risen, who was then working for the Times, “It’s like any corporate culture, where you know what management wants, and no one has to tell you.” I looked back at what I written, both at the time and a year later, and winced.
But it was Draper’s last chapter, “The Day After,” that riveted my attention. In January, 2007, Bush announced a “surge” – 20,000 additional troops to join the 150,000 or so already there. The next year was the deadliest for U.S. forces since 2004, but the level of violence gradually dropped and the additional troops were withdrawn. The last combat troops left Iraq in 2010. Some 4,400 American soldiers were killed in Iraq; 32,000 were wounded. Of the 1.5 million who served there, 300,000 returned home suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders.
The toll was heaviest for the liberated. An estimate 405,000 Iraqis would die as a result of the 2003 invasion. Instead of Saddam, Iraq now had other forces of Sunni brutality. First there was Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq; and later would come the Islamic State, commonly known as ISIS. Though participatory democracy had more or less taken root, the dominant motif in Iraq was not freedom, as Bush had hoped, but rather violence, instability, and unending recrimination.
What replaced preoccupation with Iraq? The Financial Crisis of 2008, of course.
The conventional story is that President Barack Obama inherited the disaster and somehow saved the day by obtaining the passage of a 2009 stimulus measure. If fact it was Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who led central bankers around the world in devising an effective lending response to the global panic. Both were Bush appointments in his second term, and it was Bush himself who took the lead in announcing Emergency Economic Stabilization measures of 2008.
The pell-mell retreat from Afghanistan and slow-motion disaster in Iraq were are blows to American prestige comparable to the fall of Saigon in 1975, the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979, and the Cuban Revolution of 1959. But they were not the End-of-Times battles of evil and good envisaged in Revelation, the last book of the Bible, from which we inherited the word “Apocalypse.” Something like an Apocalypse threatened in 2008. Thanks to American leadership and global teamwork, a Second Great Depression didn’t occur. We are still a long way from understanding the history of the last fifty years.